Category Archives: Vincent van Gogh

I Am Always Doing What I Can’t Do Yet in Order To Learn How To Do It

Pablo Picasso? Vincent van Gogh? Fred Beerstein?

Dear Quote Investigator: You have the following inspirational saying on the website:

Only one who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.

The above remark reminded me of a statement that has been attributed to two very different painters: Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh:

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

Can you tell me which artist really deserves the credit?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a letter sent in 1885 to painter Anthon van Rappard from Vincent van Gogh who was immersed in the creation of the landmark canvas “The Potato Eaters”. The following English text based on the Dutch original was provided by the Van Gogh Museum. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The work in question, painting the peasants, is such laborious work that the extremely weak would never even embark on it. And I have at least embarked on it and have laid certain foundations, which isn’t exactly the easiest part of the job! And I’ve grasped some solid and useful things in drawing and in painting, more firmly than you think, my dear friend. But I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.

A somewhat different translation of the key sentence appeared in volume three of “The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh” which was reviewed in “The New York Times” in 1979: 2

His own description of his work is best: “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.” Getting along with people was something else he could not do yet. “Madness,” he wrote, “is salutary in that one becomes less exclusive.” Another way of saying that when the need for human contact is terrible enough, anyone will do.

An instance was attributed to Pablo Picasso by 1995, but his death had occurred more than two decades earlier in 1973.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 528, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: Nuenen, Letter to: Anthon van Rappard, Date: August 18, 1885, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on March 26, 2017) link
  2. 1979 February 10, New York Times, Books of The Times: Nature Has Spoken to Me by Anatole Broyard, (Book Review of “The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh” in 3 Volumes), Quote Page 17, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)

I Would Rather Die of Passion than of Boredom

Vincent van Gogh? Émile Zola? Apocryphal?

starry08Dear Quote Investigator: The famous Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh has been credited with the following fervent statement:

I would rather die of passion than of boredom.

Surprisingly, this remark has also been ascribed to the prominent French novelist Émile Zola. Would you please elucidate this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1883 Émile Zola wrote a novel that contained an instance of this saying in French. In October 1884 Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo that included the quotation as part of a larger excerpt from Zola’s novel. Thus, both well-known figures employed the saying, but Zola was the originator.

In 1833 Émile Zola released “Au Bonheur des Dames” which has been given several different English titles: “The Ladies’ Paradise”, “The Ladies’ Delight”, and “The Shop Girls of Paris”. The book was part of an important and popular series of twenty novels called: Les Rougon-Macquart. The saying under examination was spoken by a character named Octave Mouret while he was conversing with a character named Paul Vallagnosc. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Agir, créer, se battre contre les faits, les vaincre ou être vaincu par eux, toute la joie et toute la santé humaines sont là!

— Simple façon de s’étourdir, murmura l’autre.

— Eh bien! j’aime mieux m’étourdir… Crever pour crever, je préfère crever de passion que de crever d’ennui!

Ils rirent tous les deux, cela leur rappelait leurs vieilles discussions du collège.

In 1883 a translation of Zola’s novel by Frank Belmont was published under the title “The Ladies’ Paradise”. The passage above was rendered as follows: 2

“To act, to create, to struggle against facts, to overcome them or be overthrown by them, all health, all human joy consists in that!”

“Simple method of diverting one’s self.”

“Well, I prefer diverting myself. Death against death, I would rather die of passion than of ennui!” They both laughed, this reminded them of their old discussions at college.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1833, Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola, Series: Les Rougon-Macquart, (Reprint of Charpentier edition from 1833 released by Hachette, Paris in 1980), Published by G. Charpentier, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1883, The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola (Émile Édouard C.A. Zola), Volume 3 of 3, Translated by Frank Belmont, Quote Page 35, Tinsley Brothers, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Great Doesn’t Happen Through Impulse Alone, and Is a Succession of Little Things That Are Brought Together

Vincent van Gogh? Apocryphal?

vangogh08Dear Quote Investigator: Several self-help books contain a statement about achieving magnificent results via an incremental approach. The saying is attributed to the brilliant and original painter Vincent van Gogh:

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not accidental, but must certainly be willed.

I have not been able to find a solid citation; are these really the words of the famous post-Impressionist?

Quote Investigator: In October 1882 Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo that expressed a matching sentiment. Below is a passage translated from Dutch to English by the Van Gogh Letters Project. The two parts of the saying were contained within the text, but they were not adjacent. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.

What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 274, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: The Hague, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date: October 22, 1882, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on December 14, 2015) link

There’s Nothing More Genuinely Artistic Than to Love People

Vincent van Gogh? Apocryphal?

siesta07Dear Quote Investigator: Vincent van Gogh was the boldest and most innovative painter of the 19th-century in my opinion. Here are two versions of a poignant statement that has been attributed to him:

There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
There’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.

Would you please explore the provenance of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: This saying appeared in a letter dated September 18, 1888 written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in which the artist expressed heartfelt thanks to his sibling for kind financial support.

A splendid database of letters and translations is accessible through the website of the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam. The database even provides facsimiles of the original letters. The following excerpt in French appeared in the 1888 letter by Vincent. The translation into English was composed by the Van Gogh Letters Project. Boldface has been added: 1

Tu es bon pour les peintres et saches le bien que plus j’y réfléchis plus je sens qu’il n’y a rien de plus réellement artistique que d’aimer les gens.

You’re kind to painters, and be sure that the more I think about it the more I feel that there’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 682, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: Arles, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date: September 18, 1888, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on May 1, 2014) link